"But when is something going to happen?!" I remember whispering to my wife shortly before 3pm on my first Christmas Eve in Sweden.
As far as I could see, we seemed to have spent the last six hours doing nothing but drinking coffee and the occasional glass of glögg, eating biscuits, exchanging quiet chit-chat, and very, very slowly preparing what we were going to eat. It seemed more an ascetic exercise in Lutheran self-restraint than a celebration.
Christmas at home in England starts early with lavish stockings stuffed to overflowing with chocolate, sweets and scores of little presents. A little after 10am, we pop the cork on a bottle of champagne, and soon afterwards start ripping the wrapping off the first of many presents. Wine and beer flows all day.
The atmosphere – at least until the late afternoon crash – is manic. And, especially when our extended family comes, it is extremely noisy.
With my wife's family in Sweden, the festivities proceed at a much gentler pace. We don't open any presents until it's dark, and the jultomte knocks and makes his visit. And when we do, the total gift volume is less than half what it would be at my family's in the UK. We don't sit down to the julbord, or drink much in the way of alcohol, until after Kalle Anka, the annual Disney show that is an obligatory part of Sweden's Christmas.
But as I make way up north for my fourth, or possibly fifth, Swedish Christmas, I find I'm now looking forward to it all.
I've more and more come to appreciate what this slow-burn celebration is all about: Mys.
Roughly equivalent to the candles and cocoa element of Denmark's hygge, mys is all about creating a sort of cosy conviviality and sense of togetherness. For my wife's family, preparing the dishes for the julbord together, making Christmas sweets like knäck or kola (toffee and fudge), and laying and decorating the table, is at least as much a part of Christmas as consuming it all.
The Christmas crafts, or julpyssel, we do with the children in the morning aren't just a way of staving off boredom in the long wait for food and presents as I initially thought. They're an important part of the action, as is the crafting of little riddles for the labels of each of the presents.
When the julbord does finally happen, it's all the better for being more of a joint achievement (rather than in the UK, where it's primarily the production of my stepmother, for whom Christmas means drudgery).
I even like the fact that when the jultomte arrives (lured by porridge and glögg left outside by the children), he's not jolly like Father Christmas, but so gruff-voiced and strange-looking that my son and daughter are almost frightened to approach him.
Most of all, though, I appreciate the way that Swedish Christmas, at least with my wife's family, is more about who you're with and what you do, than about what you get, eat or drink.
Nowadays, when we're back in the UK for Christmas, I see it more and more with Swedish eyes: the multicoloured tinsel that smothers the tree and walls is garish‚ the enormous heap of presents, plastic packaging, and discarded wrapping paper is excessive; the incoherent, slurred arguments over port and Stilton are perhaps a bit much; the sheer noise of it is exhausting.
Swedish Christmas, at least what I've experienced of it, is much less commercialized and consumerist than what I'm used to in the UK. I do wish it was a bit noisier though.
Photo: Helena Wahlman/imagebank.sweden.se